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Sailing the South Atlantic Ocean on our way to Cape Town

It took a bit of sailhandling and starting the engines a couple of times until the Europa got over the variable and shifting coastal winds around Tristan da Cunha. Engines go on and off a couple of times and sails are hoisted and taken away, as we try to round the Northern coast of the island and head on an Easterly and Southeasterly direction, Out at sea we find a more stable wind situation, but several small squalls appear over the ocean, making for keeping a reduced amount of sail until the early morning. When the sun rises and there is more daylight it was time to unfurl and set all the remaining canvas. For a couple of hours Europa sails with all her sails until crossing paths again with some more showers. As a precautionary measure crew strike the Upper Staysails and Royal halyards are prepared in case they have to be clewed up and lowered in a hurry. But despite the passing clouds, the morning goes on quite uneventfully. Just as the wind steadily rises the Upper Staysails and Gaff Top Sail are furled, and Europa enjoys a delightful and good sail under the blue skies, with winds blowing form the SW at 18 to 20kn over the ocean rolling with long swell up to 3 to 4m. Although Tristan da Cunha is located at a latitude of 37ºS and Cape town slightly north of it, at 34ºS, our track will lead us first on a SE course, in search of fair winds. From Tristan a straight line may seem the shortest route to our destination in Cape Town, but these routes are more naturally taken by motor-vessels. Since the wind dictates the progress of sailing ships, their Captains must find rules where the wind will probably blow in fair directions to accomplish an itinerary. And the winds we need are back on the latitudes of the Roaring Forties. There the global patterns of wind circulation are less affected by the landmasses. The large expanses of Open Ocean below 40 º S allow for development of high W-ly wind speed, with its flow just interrupted by small islands, Tasmania and New
Zealand. Due to the more or less reliable winds, the latitudes comprised between 40º to 50º S were of a great help for the sailing from Europe to the West Indies during the Age of Sail, between the 16th and mid-19th Centuries. A remarkable period when square-rigged ships explored the four corners of the world, traded goods and carried settlers with them. North of this area we take the risk of falling on calmer areas like the “Horse Latitudes”. Characterised by Subtropical High Pressure Systems, they represented a problem in the past times of sailing, when many ships fall into and had to wait on windless situation, rolling with the swell until they could catch some wind to keep sailing. This zone lay under a ridge of High Pressure, where little precipitation falls and the winds are light and unstable. The curious name of Horse Latitudes is of unknown origin, but it is likely to come from one or the other sources listed below. The first one is linked with the way the sailors were hired in the old times. Before embarking they use to receive a month in advanced payment, to be able to acquire the equipment needed for the voyage. They frequently had spent all this money before embarking, with the result of having to work a month without income. Ship’s Masters often found difficult to motivate their crews during this period, while the ships were reaching latitudes comprising between 30 to 35ºS. This period was traditionally called the “Dead horse”. At these latitudes they were frequently falling on the area under the influence of the Subtropical Anticyclones. After this unpaid time on board, the crew use to do a ceremony to celebrate the starting of the payment of their salaries. On this ritual the seaman parade a stuffed model of a horse around the ship before getting rid of it overboard. An alternative story tells about the times when the Spanish transported horses by sailing ships to their colonies in America and West Indies. Arriving to those mid-latitudes, often the calm conditions made for extending the duration of the trips when the ships drifted over windless still seas. The lengthening of the time at sea could result on their fresh water supply becoming short. We must remember that on this epoch the voyages were made strictly under sail, when there were not such things as generators or water-makers aboard. The lack of drinking water made impossible for the sailors to keep the horses alive, and they ended up throwing the dead animals over the side. For the moment we still experiencing variable and changing winds trying to make our way Southwards. 15 to 20kn of continuously shifting winds from the W to S-ly made for bracing and keep the sails Full-and-by on Starboard tack. As the hours pass more squalls show up in the radar and
could be seen approaching as big menacing dark clouds, making for taking precautions about the amount of canvas set. Gaff Top sail and Upper Staysails have been packed already earlier in the morning, and now during the afternoon out was time to furl the Royals and Outer Jib, drop the Top Gallants and Middle Staysails. Both the latter ones are set and taken away several times as more and more showers keep appearing on our way. Their increasing numbers and development on squall lines, seem to foretell a change in the weather and wind for the upcoming hours. Despite the atmospheric variability we made quite a good progress since our departure last evening. 121nm have been sailed on a proper direction, and all of them accompanied by warm temperatures, sunny decks refreshed now and then by the passing showers and the typical birdlife that characterise this specific area of the ocean. Again many of the birds that restrict their breeding grounds to Tristan zone showed up for the length of the day. Great shearwaters, Spectacled petrels, Yellow nosed and Sooty albatrosses. A group of Long-fiunned Pilot whales followed the ship for a while during the afternoon as well.  Measuring up to 8m in body length, and with their black colour showing a white eyepatch, in days like today with the sun shining straight into the ocean, fair 20kn of wind and waves breaking over the sea surface, hey can be confused with Orcas, and actually that is the call we first heard from the lookouts. But a closer quick look made for a good identification. In the South Atlantic, groups of those animals can be found around Falklands and close to the Western Africa coast. Tough quite common n this areas, they prefer tropical and subtropical deep waters.

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Guide

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